Social interactions between international visitors in New Zealand: contacts, processes and impacts
The importance of the social aspect of travelling in general and contacts between visitors in particular has been acknowledged in several publications. Based on sociological and social psychological approaches, literature on social interactions in service and tourism settings as well as several areas of outdoor recreation research provide some insight into the phenomenon. However, little is known about how visitor-visitor interactions manifest themselves and what personal meaning they hold for individuals. This thesis examines social interactions between previously unacquainted international visitors in New Zealand. In doing so, it addresses the reasons why visitors interact with each other, what the dimensions and natures of these interactions are, how they are perceived and evaluated, and how they can impact the visitor experience. A two-stage exploratory qualitative research approach was applied. The first phase of data collection consisted of 40 personal semi-structured in-depth exploratory interviews with international visitors to achieve an initial insight into the occurrence of the phenomenon within New Zealand. Based upon these results, a second round of 76 personal semi-structured interviews with international tourists was conducted in Wellington and Rotorua to collect detailed and contextual information on specific social interactions that visitors had experienced. Data were then analysed using a combination of qualitative and quantitative approaches to determine relationships between interaction-related factors. The analysis focussed on why social interactions occur and proceed in certain ways, how visitors perceive them and what types of interactions can influence the visitor experience. Occurrence, process, perception, and impact of visitor-visitor interactions were found to strongly depend upon the visitor type (i.e. travel behaviour) and personality of interviewees, as well as on the environmental settings within which their interactions take place and the characteristics of New Zealand as the destination. The majority of social interactions occurred or proceeded simply due to the pleasure visitors gained from interacting with others, although certain environmental contexts and therefore personal circumstances have been found to encourage interactions more than others. The length, duration, and conversation topics are also dependent upon these contexts, as well as on the relationship between interaction participants and on the dominance of independent travel in New Zealand. While no social interactions were perceived as negative, their perceived depth was found to strongly contribute to the impacts these interactions have on the visitor experience. Profound interactions were often longer and more personal and thus more likely to positively impact satisfaction with the current experience within which the respective interactions occurred than brief and superficial interactions. It was also found that the impact of cumulative social interactions throughout the whole holiday is not necessarily the same as the impact of specific social interactions on the current situation, as even superficial and trivial interactions contribute to a positive and friendly atmosphere. Depending on the visitors’ travel behaviour, social interactions with other tourists positively affected their visitor experience in a variety of ways. For single long-term travellers, this frequently occurred on an emotional level by contributing to psychological well-being and providing social contact and support. Interactions also often affected the travels of visitors by enhancing destination knowledge and understanding, and contributing to travel itineraries and activities and attractions that visitors participated in. This outcome is especially relevant for visitors travelling with their partner who do not benefit on an emotional level to the same extent. Visitor-visitor interactions have thus been found to directly impact other parts of the visitor experience, such as the products and services that are consumed, due to the relevance of word-of-mouth recommendations during these interactions. The complexity of the phenomenon of visitor-visitor interactions however requires further research, especially in identifying the applicability of this study to other forms of tourism or other destinations.